Horses and The Form-Function Principle


The form-function principle as it relates to a horse’s body, suggests that each part of the body; each unique form, is designed to carry out a specific function.  How the form-function principle pertains to horse biomechanics, has been the work of Dr Gavin Scofield.

Dr Scofield would say that “each structure within the body serves a purpose and the exact form of each body part is related to its purpose; its function”. Overall, the design of a horse’s body is what it is because of the things a horse needed to do to survive in the wild. Healthy function means that the movement of the body is operating  appropriately, according to the mechanical design of each part of the body.

For example, the hip joint is a ball and socket structure that has a deep socket with a small ball. Ball and socket design allows extensive range of motion for the limb and the deep socket/small ball structure is engineered more for stability rather than just mobility. Stabilizing the body in motion from the use of the pelvis hind legs is appropriate use of the structure. The shoulder joint is another ball and socket structure but has a shallow socket and a large ball. The change in design for the shoulder joint supports an even greater range of motion than the hip joint and is less mechanically suitable for weight bearing or stabilizing. Bearing a majority of body weight on the front legs is inappropriate and damaging to the horse’s structure. The horse’s body is also designed symmetrically, meaning that the structures on the left and right sides of the body mirror each other. This tells us that appropriate use should  also be equal side to side for healthy function.

Analyzing each part of the anatomy and understanding the form-function principle begins to reveal what constitutes bio-mechanically correct movement. Having a general understanding of the horse musculoskeletel design and taking into account the Form-Function Principle, helps our understanding of correct and healthy movement. Looking at the details of the horse’s inherent, natural physical structures tells not only how each body part should ideally function, but how the overall body should function. Once this concept is understood, it becomes easier to see when a horse is moving in good balance or when a horse is having to compensate for poor mechanical use of the body.

From “Adams’ Lameness In Horses” – 5th edition:

Traveling heavy on the forehand sets the stage for increased concussion, stress and lameness.

So what does this mean for the horse owner/rider? It means you have the power to effect and encourage the horse to use its body in a mechanically efficient way; a way that promotes long term healthy physical development.

It means ground training and riding sessions should reflect encouragement of the horse’s healthy bio-mechanical use. Ignoring this reality can lead to chronic soreness, behavioral problems and even lameness for a horse that is continually crooked and/or bearing too much weight on the front legs.  Nature will not allow the body to flourish in dysfunctional use for very long. Domestication and adding weight to a horse in motion can be constructive or destructive. We can allow a horse to function for years with patterns of crookedness and an inappropriate amount of weight on the front legs or we can alter our training methods to encourage correct mechanical use of the body. The choice is more ours than our horse’s. My work as a horse trainer is focused on helping riders become aware of our impact on the horse’s body, and teaching riders how to encourage the horse towards healthy mechanical use of the body.

The greatest benefit of understanding the simple principles regarding correct horse function is that it helps us sort through information, opinions and personalities when it comes to what is best for the horse. The horse’s body tells us how it should ideally function, no matter what level of training we are currently working at.  Good training can be seen in the very body of the horse as can poor training. Despite conformation, age, breeding or innate talent, we can all work to understand the form-function principles and work to achieve healthy movement as an important goal of training horses.

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